For Pistons, playoff berth an important step forward

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DETROIT (AP) After six seasons of virtual irrelevance, the Detroit Pistons are heading back to the playoffs.

And they certainly had to earn their spot.

“It’s a little more satisfying because it’s in a year where the East was a lot better,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “The last few years, it would have taken 37 or 38 wins to get in. We had to get to 43 with two games to go still to get in.”

The Pistons clinched their first playoff berth since 2009 with a 112-99 win over Washington on Friday night. Now a dozen years removed from its most recent NBA title, Detroit is hoping this accomplishment will mark the end of a dreary stretch in which the organization changed coaches constantly and struggled to draw fans to the Palace.

Van Gundy was hired two offseasons ago as coach and team president. After going 32-50 last season, Detroit improved significantly, and the team will be rewarded with a chance to play under the playoff spotlight.

“It’s huge for our organization,” Van Gundy said. “We’ve said all along that we’ve got four starters in there who have never been, and this is huge for them.”

The Pistons can be especially encouraged because of their young roster. Star center Andre Drummond is 22, and point guard Reggie Jackson turns 26 this month. This season, Detroit traded for 23-year-old Tobias Harris, whose presence down the stretch seemed to open up scoring opportunities for other players.

Other contributors include 23-year-old Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, 26-year-old Marcus Morris and 19-year-old rookie Stanley Johnson.

Jackson has at least some postseason experience, having played for Oklahoma City before being traded to the Pistons in 2015. This playoff chase felt different, though.

“I was the backup before, we were always clinching at around 60 games (with Oklahoma City) and we always knew that we would be there,” Jackson said. “Right now we’re a young team, we’re growing together, we have a nice mixture of players who are very young and some older veterans who have been here. We’re just trying to figure this thing out.”

The key stretch for Detroit was a nine-game homestand that began in mid-March. The Pistons went 6-3, then went on the road and beat Chicago. The Bulls and Wizards eventually fell short in the race for a playoff spot.

The Pistons will surely be underdogs no matter whom they face in the first round. Detroit will be seeded either seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference and go against either Cleveland or Toronto.

The Pistons are still a flawed team. They rely heavily on their rebounding and haven’t always defended well enough for Van Gundy’s liking. And then there’s the issue of Drummond’s 36 percent foul shooting, which has caused Van Gundy to take him out in the fourth quarter at times.

But all of those concerns can wait. The Pistons can feel good about what they’ve already accomplished, knowing they’ve earned a chance to experience postseason basketball at the Palace – with fans who have waited a while for the playoffs to return to the Detroit area.

“I’ve been around the game for a long time and picked a lot of people’s brains,” Harris said. “The biggest thing is just to play as hard as you can every single night, and we have to be ready. The level of intensity picks up another notch going into playoff basketball, probably two or three notches, so we really need to be on our game.”

Follow Noah Trister at http://www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones

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Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.

Watch Russell Westbrook drain two buzzer-beaters against Blazers

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The Portland Trail Blazers had to know it was not their night when Russell Westbrook knocked down a buzzer-beating step-back 3-pointer just before the half.

Westbrook wasn’t done, he had one more buzzer-beater in him at the end of the third.

Westbrook wasn’t the only guy in the building draining half-courters — for the second-straight game a Laker fan knocked down a half-court shot, this time to win $25,000.

It was a good night all around for the Lakers and their fans at home against the shorthanded Trail Blazers. They got 31 points from LeBron James, plus 27 points and 12 boards from Anthony Davis. Austin Reaves added in 22, and the Lakers took control in the third and cruised in for a needed win.